"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in Barack Obama (3)


Uncle Bruce Heimark, January 2, 1926 – November 5, 2012

I cannot think of a week with greater emotional swings of high and low than this past week has been. A death in my family. Rebirth in our country.

My mother’s youngest brother, Bruce Heimark, died on the morning of November 5, just as his family was preparing to call in hospice care.

He was my funniest relative, and rather merciless in his humor, as Norwegian-American Vikings can be.

I remember at the age of 12, walking down our driveway in Paradise Valley, Arizona to get the mail. Maybe I’d just seen a Marilyn Monroe film--I was trying out a sideways hip swivel. I wasn’t aware that Uncle Bruce was behind me, but when I turned to go back to the house, he turned too, and did an expert imitation of my slinky moves. In a man as tall as he, it was hilarious. And mortifying. Not a word about it to me, just a demonstration.

Norwegians from Minnesota are great jokesters, but they also put great store in being genuine, that is, unaffected in behavior and speech. In one minute my uncle had cured me forever of any temptation to be stagey or phony.

(Genuine is such a high compliment coming from my Norwegian relatives that when I brought Richard home for the first time, my mother crooked her finger at me 15 minutes after we’d arrived to say sotto voce in the kitchen. “Don’t let him get away! He’s genuine,” in a tone that others might use about God. (I told her not to worry, he wasn't running.))

I remember going to lunch with Bruce when I was visiting family in Paradise Valley, Arizona, during the period that he and Lee lived there. We talked about the shock of the late ‘60s for my parents, when their three oldest children were busy sampling every new freedom that was in the air.

From his more conservative Minnesota perspective, Bruce said, “I don’t know why they were so surprised. They’d encouraged you kids to be free from the time you were small—in books, music, travel, political perspective, independent thinking—everything.” 

I was startled by his perspective; it had never occurred to me that their encouragement of adventurous living was anything unusual, and at the same time, I knew what he said was true.

Bruce spoke at my father’s memorial eloquently, without notes. And afterwards, during my mother’s long grieving, he called her every week.




Then, several years ago, when Richard and I went to AWP, a conference for writers and teachers in Chicago, I remember the winter night of winds so strong we laughed uncontrollably as we were blown like leaves down the street. We were on our way to meet Bruce and Lee, cousin Kris and her husband, Jim, for dinner at The Chicago Firehouse, a yellow brick building that was once a firehouse, and still had the tin ceiling and brass poles.

Bruce had been through a health crisis not long before, and had nearly died. Through intensive care and intense love from his family he’d pulled through. His heart surgery and complications from a hospital-induced infection, meant a slow recovery that had coincided with his daughter Sue’s illness and death.

We had a rollicking good dinner conversation about family and books and our lives, as you always did with Bruce and his family.

That was the last time I saw Bruce. In spite of my mother’s claim that she was done with travel (Ja, sure, Betty, I imagine Bruce saying) she was glad that she'd flown to Chicago with my sister, Ann, then on to Mankato with Bruce and Lee, Kris and Jim, to celebrate my uncle Jack’s ninetieth birthday last January. Showing up, being there, that is everything.

I know that more memories of Bruce will surface in the weeks to come. I’ll remember the timbre of his voice. I’ll remember his sly trickster humor, and how he made everyone laugh.

Monday night, my aunt told me that when Bruce was in the hospital after a stroke last week, the nurse asked him a series of questions.

     What was his middle name?

     “Bruce Douglas,” he said. "And what's yours?"

     "How old are you?"

     "86. How old are you?"

     “Who is the President?”

     “O-BAMA!” he roared.

     "He's a Republican," said my aunt.

     “I gathered,” said the nurse.

When I spoke with Lee on the phone she said she imagined that he was already playing cribbage with his daughter, Sue, and she beat him.

I wonder if he heard the word “hospice” and said to himself, “No thanks, checking out!”

Or maybe it was the prospect of an Obama victory?

That victory was the high of the week—of the year—for Richard and me and most of our family and friends.

But love is larger than political affiliation, and may be the only force strong enough to solve the major problems of our country and the world.

When life draws to a close, our memories of that person seem to be etched in the heavens, and take on the radiance of stars. Bruce’s star is dancing and twinkling with laughter. The secret of his humor? Timing! Right to the very end.


Paris street art by JPM




Healing the Planet


This article in The New York Times got me thinking about compassion. Here is an official of the city of Girona, who, with more than a million people starving in Spain, put padlocks on the supermarket trash bins in his city.

“It’s against the dignity of these people to have to look for food in this manner,” said Eduardo Berloso…. Mr. Berloso proposed the measure last month after hearing from social workers and seeing for himself one evening “the humiliating gesture of a mother with children looking around before digging into the bins.” 

Humiliating, perhaps, but better than starving. What he really meant was that it was humiliating for the image of the tourist town of Girona. 

To do him justice, he did arrange for vouchers for licensed pantries and soup kitchens to be passed out where people come to forage for tossed-out food, but he ignored the fact that many of these people are not accustomed to hand-outs and would rather go out at night to comb through trash bins, or to food pantries in neighboring towns to avoid being seen by anyone who knows them. Most of these people would rather have jobs.

But Berloso can't imagine others’ feelings. He can't feel their shame. It is a failure of compassion but also, of understanding. Maybe empathy is a better word, since it seems to imply both compassion and understanding.



My first thought was that there ought to be tests given for compassion, for empathy, before anyone is permitted to run for office. But how would you determine that? What would that test be?

As usual, the minute I got into the shower, an answer came. By listening to people’s stories. By observing their actions. By listening to their stories which will tell you about their actions.

The three questions you’d want to ask are:

1)   How does he or she treat animals?

2)   How does he or she treat other humans?

3)   How does he or she treat others’ spiritual beliefs?



I’m thinking of the approaching presidential election in the U.S.A. Which brings to mind three true stories about the Republican party candidate, Mitt Romney.

He tied his Irish setter dog, Seamus, to the roof of the family car for a 12-hour drive to Canada. Okay, maybe not the actual dog, but a kennel containing the dog. Now, imagine you are Seamus. (Shame-us) On returning home, you too might wander away. 

In prep school, he spearheaded an attack on a gay student, John Lauber, whose bleached-blond hair he didn’t like, wrestled him down, and cut off his hair. Now imagine you are that boy.

One of the bullies involved encountered Lauber years later, and apologized. Lauber said, “It was horrible,” and described how frightened he was during the attack. He never forgot it. He died of cancer, after an apparently peripatetic life--and according to his sister, never stopped bleaching his hair. 

Romney wants to remove the rights of women concerning their own bodies, their own health, their own reproductive decisions, in spite of the fact that a majority of American women do not share the fundamentalist belief that men should control women. Imagine you are the woman who has been raped and is told she cannot have an abortion. Or the man whose wife will die without one. Or the mother whose child desperately needs medical care which she cannot afford--she can’t even afford health insurance.



A spiritual matter? Oh yes it is. The need to control women is seriously disrespectful of their autonomy and comes almost entirely from men (and women) who believe in patriarchal religions or are still living as if they do. If you cannot picture goddesses as well as gods or God, that is your model of ultimate value. Men have divine power; women must be subjected to that power.

Disrespect for animals.

Disrespect for humans.

Disrespect for others’ spiritual beliefs.

Well, that’s simple. Not qualified to hold office.



That Portuguese water dog, Bo, in President Barack Obama’s family seems pretty content to me.

I’ve never heard a story about President Obama’s disrespectful treatment of another human being. Have you?

Obama doesn’t mock spiritual beliefs that are not his own, and is respectful of Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews, agnostics and atheists, as far as I know. He doesn’t seem to believe that men should control the destiny of women, including women who believe that abortion is unthinkable. He respects others’ spiritual beliefs.



Last week Richard and I were lying in bed watching clouds flow by above our zinc roof, and talking about this and that. He told me about a terrific book he’d just finished, Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” He talked about the closeness of fundamentalism and patriarchy that is uncovered in the book.

That’s a subject that interests me, so I said I’d like to read it.

He said he hadn’t recommended the book to me, because he knows how much I hate violence, and it was very violent.



But I read it anyway. It’s the story of a family of fundamentalist brothers who have broken away from the Mormon church, but are shaping their new sect on the Mormon principle of personal divine revelation, and a return to polygamy. The youngest one is married to Brenda, who was a top TV anchorwoman, until—naturally, in a patriarchal marriage—she has to give it up.

But she is educated, smart, warm, fearless, strong and outspoken, the least submissive of all the brothers’ wives. When another of the brothers, Ron, becomes more and more fanatical, crazed, and abusive to his wife, Dianna, she talks with Brenda, who encourages her to divorce, and Dianna summons the courage to leave him. 

Brenda continues to tell the other wives to stand up for their rights and think for themselves. She refuses to obey the demands of the six brothers. What can a man do with a disobedient woman? With absolute conviction in the rightness of their act, which they claim God ordered through a personal revelation, Ron and Dan murder Brenda and the infant daughter of one of their own brothers.



The story of these brothers and other fundamentalist Mormons and how they treated their wives, how they married and raped pubescent girls, and abused and crushed the spirits of the women in their lives was repulsive. These are men who claim they receive direct revelation from God, vision that a woman cannot receive, men who cannot be dissuaded if they hear voices telling them to marry their wives’ daughters from earlier marriages, to murder a wife who dares to question them—it’s the ultimate power trip. Empathy does not exist in their world.

My sleep was disturbed for days. I couldn’t finish the book. But based on what I did read, I’d say it’s the best book on the unholy alliance between fundamentalism and patriarchy I’ve ever read.

I think we’re lost on this planet unless we give animals, women and other marginalized people, and, yes, goddesses, equal power. The planet’s health depends on it.


Sculpture by Louise Bourgeois  



Sarkozy, C'est Fini!


Sunday night, at Place Bastille, where at least a hundred thousand jubilant people gathered under an overcast sky to welcome a new president, it all came down to two chants.

Sarkozy, c'est fini! (SAHR-ko-zee SAY-fee-nee)!

Hollande gagne! (OH-lan GAHN-yea)!

"Sarkozy is finished," and "Hollande won."

So ended the hard-fought and often nasty election campaign which saw France turn for the first time in sixteen years to the Socialists, making the center/right Nicolas Sarkozy a single-term president. 

This was the scene a few seconds past eight p.m., when the TV station being broadcast on the stadium-sized screen at Place Bastille flashed François Hollande's photograph, over the percentage of votes (51.7%) that exit polls showed him receiving. The jubilation was reminiscent of Barack Obama's 2008 Grant Park rally on election night in Chicago:


In addition to our exclusive Paris Play video, here are faces of the evening captured in stills, with our impressions, and a word or two about what we think could come next.


A line of (mostly) women dancing and ululating with glee

A father and daughter celebrate


And plenty of time for silliness


Each time the screen showed a picture of the outgoing president, seen here conceding defeat, the huge crowd booed...


...or worse


The young and lithe climbed to the base of the famous Bastille column


Thousands upon thousands of revelers boiled out of the Metro stations...


...and boogied on to Place Bastille, swelling the crowd to at least a hundred thousand strong


He was disappointed that the police forbade him to ride his motorcycle into the huge crowd...


...while these folks on rue St. Antoine cheered the celebrants from their safe second-floor perch


The magazine L'Express was hot off the presses within two hours, while the president-elect didn't arrive to address the waiting crowd until 12:45 the next morning


There were plenty of homemade signs, and the crowd was overwhelmingly young


The ubiquitous image of Che Guevara, found wherever leftist internationalists gather


In 2008, when Obama and his supporters celebrated in Grant Park, they did so under a growing economic cloud, the result of the Bush administration's mishandling of the American economy, which meant the celebrations had to be short, because the United States was in crisis. The economy cast a pall that Obama still labors under; as he runs for a second term, the Republicans work to foster the lie that the Great Recession is the Democratic president's fault.  

Three-and-a-half years after Grant Park, incoming president Hollande labors under a similar cloud. The European economy is worse off than the United States' (though the entire world economy is yoked together), and France suffers from record high unemployment, as its citizens chafe at the austerity measures the European Union is demanding.

Hollande's victory flies in the face of that demand. He believes (as does American economist Paul Krugman) that austerity is a ridiculous policy in the face of a recession, and that economies must be nurtured with strong government measures to increase employment and strengthen social programs.

The UK newspaper, The Independent, which doesn't like Hollande, grumps that Sarkozy's defeat "...poses once again the question of whether any national leader, of any party, can impose the degree of austerity deemed necessary by the financial markets and remain electable." One of the messages that both left and right were united on this year was that "financial markets" were not governments; the French wanted French elected officials, not Brussels-based European Union bureaucrats, to make economic and political decisions for their country.

Whatever the next weeks, months, or years of a Hollande presidency have to offer, the basic question is, what kind of a world will this young will-be voter, carried by her mother to witness this critical historical moment, find herself in when she comes of age?